In one of several meaty monologues Sean Harris gets to chew on in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, his villainous Solomon Lane turns the franchise’s most famous line in on itself. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” he whispers with the conspiratorial undertones of Lucifer. “I wonder, Ethan, did you ever choose not to? Did you ever stop and ask yourself who it was giving you the orders or why?”
It’s a great smaller moment in a movie remembered largely for its epic bombast (as you’ll see below), and another example of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie digging down into the franchise’s fundamentals at a granular level. Ethan and his team of fellow highly skilled IMF operatives always accept the mission. Heck, oftentimes they take it a step further and go rogue, completing the mission long after their superiors have thrown in the towel. It’s why we enjoy watching these movies, and why a character as reckless as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt can be so fun to watch. That, plus Cruise’s dazzling real-life commitment to entertain audiences no matter how dangerous or demented the stunt he and his team of filmmakers come up with for the next one.
As a consequence, the Mission: Impossible franchise has come to be recognized over the last quarter century (and particularly in the last 10 years) as one of the greatest spectacles to come out of Hollywood: action movies where they always choose to do as much of the mission in-camera as possible. It’s gifted us with a number of iconic movie moments and breathtaking stunt sequences. And we’ve documented the 10 very best action scenes for your perusal below. Happy Hunt-ing.
10. Helicopter Chase
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
As will soon become clear from this list, the 2018 vintage of Cruise’s signature franchise is a watermark for action scenes in Mission: Impossible. Loaded to the brim with one crackling set piece after another (believe it or not, it was a struggle leaving a handful off this ranking!), Fallout was the kind of genre kismet that can only occur when Tom Cruise, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood are allowed to stage all the action beats from the beginning of pre-production and before even a script is written. In this way, Mission: Impossible – Fallout allowed them to realize something Cruise had long wanted to do: a real in-camera helicopter chase.
Helicopter sequences are nothing new to the spy movie genre, of course. However, never before had a star of one of those flicks insisted on doing his own flying, with Cruise logging in hundreds of hours (or about three months) worth of helicopter training to get his license. He and McQuarrie then staged a white-knuckled sequence in which Cruise pilots his rotorcraft over low altitude and mountainous terrain, all of which is captured with IMAX cameras. And while co-star Henry Cavill isn’t flying the other chopper, those shots of him clinging on for dear life as centripetal force causes his body to lift in the air is very real and very satisfying.
When edited together to Lorne Balfe’s propulsive score and the ticking clock that is intercut with spy games being played elsewhere, you have a singular climactic movie moment.
9. Underwater Heist
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Not since the first few Mission: Impossible flicks did we have a proper heist sequence. So when of all the gin joints in the world, Ethan walks into Ilsa Faust’s in Casablanca, M:I-5 gets real fun. It is here that Rebecca Ferguson’s MI6 double agent talks Ethan and Benji into an impossible robbery. To trick a new security protocol that measures how a person walks—and not just their eyes or fingerprints—Ethan will have to dive into an underwater vault without an air tank and hold his breath for more than three minutes while avoiding the kind of moving obstacles that wouldn’t be out of place in a Super Mario game.
As with the most famous heist scene in the first Mission: Impossible movie, this is a largely quiet exercise in tension-building as audience members are invited to try and hold their breath as long as Cruise (and later Ferguson) underneath the water. But what really sells the scene is how like all latter-day Mission: Impossible movies, Ethan is not quite the mad daredevil as his real-life actor. He does not want to actually try and do these crazy stunts. So when his pal Benji (Simon Pegg) boasts, “Don’t worry about him, alright? All he has to do is [hold his breath for three minutes]. That doesn’t sound impossible,” the look of frustration and barely veiled fear on Ethan’s face makes the setup funny, and the subsequent action beat where he begins to drown terrifying.
8. Rumble in the Chunnel
The original Mission: Impossible is an interesting beast in retrospect. Designed to be as much a ‘90s techno-thriller from Brian De Palma as it was a summer spectacle, it feels downright restrained and grounded when compared to the action extravaganzas that came afterward. However, there is nothing cerebral about the muscular climax of the movie inside of a train rocketing between London and Paris beneath the English Channel.
The final sequence that would really set the stage for what Mission: Impossible would become relies more on blue screen and visual effects than its successors, but is still one of the most visceral and exciting moments in the series thanks to De Palma’s tactical staging and editing by Paul Hirsch that resembles the precision of a Swiss Army Watch. Here Cruise’s hunt comes face-to-face with his allegedly dead mentor Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and reveals he figured it out by disguising himself as Jim to entrap Phelps’ supposed widow, the femme fatale Claire (Emmanuelle Béart). And even at gun point, Hunt is able to turn the tables on Phelps again with the right gadget. Yet all of these spy shenanigans become moot when Jim takes this outside, and he and Ethan have their hands at each other’s throats while the villain’s escape helicopter gets dragged into it—literally.
The final climactic moment where Cruise earns a deafening needle drop of the Mission: Impossible theme by chewing on some explosive gum is the type of giddy nonsense that Hollywood blockbusters used to excel at, although rarely as thrilling as this.
7. Armored Truck-to-Motorcycle-to-Car Chases Through Paris
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
One of the most satisfying elements about Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how McQuarrie, Cruise, and Eastwood build set pieces within set pieces like a Russian nesting doll, until the viewer is so punch drunk from eye candy that they cannot tell up from down. That is most apparent in the madness they unleash throughout the streets of Paris at the end of the film’s first act. When the scene begins we know one thing: Ethan and CIA bagman August Walker (Henry Cavill) are required to break Solomon Lane out of police custody while he’s being transported through the French capital. Ethan is obviously going to do it in a way that will not kill any cops despite what Walker and others think, however the twists and turns that follow weave essentially three separate scenes into one enormous symphony of stunt choreography.
First, there is the bit where Ethan actually gets Lane out of the clutches of authorities by knocking an armored car into the Seine. We’ve watched beats like this before in movies like The Dark Knight, but McQuarrie doesn’t just insert a shot of the river’s waters coming up to submerge Lane, they crash inside the capsized truck like a mini-tidal wave coming just for the fiend; meanwhile Ethan must escape the police, which turns into stunning long takes of Cruise driving a motorcycle around the Arc de Triomphe against traffic (evading stunt drivers). Even when escape seems certain, it turns into another chase where Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is now the one on the motorcycle pursuing Ethan and Lane in a car perfect for doing wheelies through narrow cobblestone streets.
It just keeps going. And by the end you’re exhausted from the visual pummeling you just received—and smiling about it.
6. Motorcycle Chase in Casablanca
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Another motorcycle sequence worth singling out is the one in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. This scene is a lot shorter than the action triptych described above, and it also relies on more digital trickery as the highway Cruise and Ferguson (or at least her stunt woman) are speeding down is populated with CGI cars. However, this sequence is also a little more playful and just oh, so satisfying.
Moments before this scene was the aforementioned underwater heist, and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is newly returned from Death’s waiting room thanks to a defibrillator. So the humor is high when the sequence begins with a bleary-eyed Hunt scaring the hell out of Simon Pegg by insisting he still drives. But once Ethan finally trades in the car for a motorcycle and goes solo after Ilsa across a Moroccan highway, wind whipping in his hair and Hawaiian shirt, the scene becomes poetry in motion. This is the Ethan Hunt character in his final form.
5. Bathroom Brawl
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Sometimes it’s better to not overthink things. The stripped down brawl between Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, and Liang Yang is as direct and ferocious as this franchise has ever gotten. There are no frills or gadgets here. In fact the main gadget intended to steal the face of Yang’s “John Lark” is decimated early on when Cavill’s secret agent uses it to bludgeon the target across the skull. Not that that really slows him down. Soon enough “Lark” is back on his feet and believably beating the crap out of Cruise and Cavill at the same time, even after Cavill creates the instant meme-worthy moment of reloading his arms for another round of fisticuffs.
McQuarrie opts to not use any score in this sequence, and likewise resists relying too much on fancy editing. There are multiple camera setups that linger on the pure, visceral violence of Yang kicking Cavill in the face repeatedly, or wrapping a water pipe around Cruise’s neck. In fact, the movie believably suggests the franchise should’ve ended right here if not for the fact that Ilsa intervenes and explodes Lark’s coveted face with a bullet. But even in the aftermath, McQuarrie reveals an unexpectedly mean playfulness by lingering the camera on the blood trail ol’ Johnny leaves behind.
4. A Night at the Opera
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The best set piece in McQuarrie’s first M:I joint features neither helicopters or planes, motorcycles or high velocity rounds. It’s actually as elegant as the franchise has ever been both by literally setting its stage at the Vienna State Opera, and figuratively by intentionally evoking the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Like that thriller, here is a sequence about building anticipation for an assassination, and where the killers will only murder a head of state on the performance’s highest note.
Yet it’s in the way McQuarrie and the film luxuriate in the tension by slowly moving the characters and pieces across the proverbial chessboard that makes this truly Hitchcockian. Backstage, Cruise is doing his best Harpo Marx impression as he jumps between ropes and catwalks above a knockout performance of Puccini’s Turandot. Slowly, he and Pegg’s Benji become aware that there are not one but three assassins located at different points within the opera house, creating a kill box for their target. Among those threats is Ferguson’s scene-stealing Ilsa Faust. Indeed, this is where she began stealing much of the attention in these movies by revealing the flute she carried backstage is actually a rifle. By the time Ethan realizes he has only one shot and two targets aiming at the world leader, the movie reaches a genuine crescendo—particularly with Ethan’s ingenious solution.
Additionally, the use of “Nessun Dorma” in this sequence, with the aria shadowing Ilsa like a ghost, is so potent that composer Joe Kraemer makes it her unofficial theme for the rest of the movie. It’s a neat trick they should bring back in Dead Reckoning.
3. HALO Jumping at 25,000 Feet
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
You’ve heard this story before and that’s because it’s a good one. Tom Cruise did a real HALO jump out of a plane at 25,000 feet. That is to say Cruise breathed in nothing but pure oxygen for half an hour before his plane took off, so as to prevent his lungs from exploding, and then while still needing an oxygen tank did a parachute jump from an altitude only attempted by military and clandestine personnel. This actually happened and was captured in IMAX because camera operator Craig O’Brien did the same… backwards and with a camera strapped to his head.
It’s insane, all the more so when you realize, as stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood told us in 2018, that Cruise needed to do the jump upwards of a hundred times to get the shot choreography perfect at sunset. There is of course some digital trickery—they didn’t dive into a thunder cloud and the jump occurred over the deserts of the United Arab Emirates instead of Paris because French authorities wouldn’t sign off on such insanity. Nevertheless, that’s really Cruise during the magic hour of dusk plummeting about five miles toward the earth alongside other foolhardy stuntmen. Amazing.
2. Hanging Out in the Vault
If there was just one scene that folks would likely know from the Mission: Impossible series without ever watching any of the movies, this would be it. The sequence has been homaged, parodied, and copied for nearly 30 years. So it’s kind of miraculous it still holds up as a stunning showcase in tension-building and mise en scène.
Methodically laid out by Brian De Palma like a painter assembling his oils, we both hear and see why this should be impossible: pressure sensitive floors, sensors to detect sounds louder than a pin drop and any increase in room temperature due to a human body. And yet, Ethan’s first renegade team makes it work by dangling the poor bastard like a worm on a hook above the floor, all while holding their breath every time the CIA technician enters the vault (although the food poisoning they inflicted on the schmuck provides some much needed comic relief).
I still remember being in the theater and the moment where Jean Reno loses his grip and drops Ethan inches within the floor. When that lonely bead of sweat starts dripping off his glasses, the silence in the movie theater could’ve matched anything in that vault.
1. Scaling the Tallest Building on Earth
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was the turning point for this franchise. It’s the one Cruise made after Paramount Pictures dissolved their 20-year relationship with the actor following the box office disappointment of Mission: Impossible III (and the star’s own publicity troubles after a disastrous, Scientology-fueled PR tour the year before that). The studio at first didn’t want Cruise in M:I-4 and then attempted to cast his replacement in Jeremy Renner, who appears here as an apparent protégé. So, newly chastened, Cruise partnered with director Brad Bird (who contributed to the screenplay, as did the franchise’s soon-to-be author McQuarrie) and reinvented the franchise for the better.
Firstly, Ghost Protocol is the first Mission: Impossible movie to really make this an ensemble with the team being just as important as Ethan Hunt. There are traces of that in the first and third films too, but every character is vital in Ghost Protocol in a way the previous entries never attempted. Secondly, this is where Cruise’s penchant for thrill-seeking stunts became the franchise’s centerpiece. And that all came down to the best set piece Cruise has thus far ever achieved: the scene where he really climbs a large swath of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. In a year when Spider-Man was transitioning from Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield, and yet both relied on camera tricks and CGI to do their wall-crawling, here was the world’s once-biggest movie star doing it for real, 120 floors up from oblivion.
As with other sequences, the real trick though is how unlike the actor Ethan is in the moment. He’s barely keeping his cool the whole time he’s up there; he doesn’t want to be doing this, and Renner’s negative prodding of Hunt in his ear about time running out only heightens the character’s anxiety. And then his sci-fi glue gloves start to break down. (In real life, Cruise had a harness that was digitally removed from IMAX photography.) It’s a crackerjack sequence even before Cruise starts swinging like Spidey from a rope to get back to the right floor in time.
This is the moment where Mission: Impossible became the franchise we know it is today, and Cruise found his third era of movie stardom: he’s the star who’ll happily court death for our amusement.